New England’s role in the opium trade in the early 1800s is a little-noted phenomenon. New England opium trade produced considerable wealth for America. As it was never seen as a wholesome pursuit, however, those who prospered from the opium trade tended to downplay its significance (much the way trade in slaves was marginalized in many family histories.)
And in truth America’s trade in opium was insignificant compared to Britain’s role in promoting opium. For centuries, opium – harvested from poppy plants – made its way around the globe as a fairly insignificant product. England developed an appetite for opium-based medicines throughout the 1600s.
Smoking opium took hold in China as a remedy for toothaches and other pains. But its addictive qualities quickly made recreational uses the driver of consumption. By the early 1700s, the damage that opium addiction was inflicting on the Chinese populace was readily apparent in the country’s flop-houses and drug dens. As early as 1729 Chinese officials were trying to enforce bans on the drug.
But Britain’s East India Company was becoming addicted to opium, too. Some historians argue that opium had replaced tea in importance to the East India Company, because the profit margins on the product were so high. Demand was non-stop and competition was virtually non-existent. By 1793, Britain had a virtual monopoly in supplying Indian opium to China, using a precise system of harvesting, delivering and selling its opium into the market.
But the politics of the drug remained complicated. By 1800 the Chinese government had outlawed opium yet again, and even in Britain it was viewed as unwholesome.
The East India Company, meanwhile, demanded Indian farmers sell their opium to the company, cutting out competition. The company would refine the opium and sell it to smugglers who could deliver it freely to China’s many markets rather than having to deal through China’s official Canton factory system. British ships themselves were strictly forbidden to carry opium into China.
This convoluted mechanism for selling opium left plenty of room for profit, a fact not lost on New England merchants who were developing their own China trade.
The New England opium trade began as a necessary trade balancing product. The Chinese had tea and silk that were in demand in America. But America (as well as Britain) had far fewer goods that interested the Chinese.
China demanded to be paid in silver. This use of a hard currency burdened America and Britain, which had little access to silver. In looking for another commodity that could be traded with China, the British had identified opium as such a product. American traders decided to follow suit.
American vessels had been operating on the fringes of the opium trade prior to 1800, but in 1805 the trade blossomed. The Philadelphia firm Willings & Francis and James and Benjamin Wilcocks took the first leaps into opium. They sent ships to Turkey to purchase opium that was not controlled by the East India Company for shipment to India.
But New Englanders were not far behind. New England merchants were being crippled by trade embargoes enacted by Thomas Jefferson in 1807 and 1808. With American-based vessels restricted to port and under the thumb of customs officials, the concept of trading products that never needed to enter American jurisdictions was immensely appealing.
The Cabot family launched an opium trade. James and Thomas Perkins of Boston contacted their nephew John Cushing to urge him to investigate the business. Cushing was the Perkins’ representative in China.
Cushing would become a millionaire in his own right during his 30 years in China overseeing the interests of Perkins & Co. He would return to Boston as one of its wealthiest men and most eligible bachelors.
How much Perkins & Co. and the other New England China traders made from the trade in opium is unknown. They engaged in numerous lines of business, from loaning money to importing Chinese goods.
Jacques M. Downs, an historian of the opium trade, notes that as New England and other American merchants rushed into the opium business, the market became far more volatile. Unlike the precisely measured approach of the East India Company, these independents would rush to turkey for opium and back to China as fast as possible. The margins were so high at some points, traders would buy opium exported to London and return to China with it to sell at a profit.
However, when too many shiploads of opium would arrive in Chinese ports, the price would collapse and one trader noted in 1807 that the opium trade had “disappointed many this past season” because of oversupply.
As the war of 1812 concluded and the British defeated Napoleon in 1815, England began getting better control over the sale of opium. British interests began monopolizing a greater share of Turkish opium. By 1862, after fighting two wars with China (called the Opium Wars), Britain and France forced China to open its markets and legalized the opium trade.
America’s appetite for opium, meanwhile, had been growing rapidly. With trade embargoes lifted after the War of 1812, opium imports skyrocketed. In 1840 New Englanders imported 24,000 pounds of opium, enough to draw the attention of the federal government, which quickly placed a tax on it.